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Cracks Appearing


Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has declared 2017 “the year of revolt” against the “old European liberal elite.” But his Visegrád group of Central European countries is far less united than many think.

© REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Viktor Orbán has been in preaching mode recently. Hungary’s prime minister no longer complains about Germany’s “moral imperialism,” as he did at the peak of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015. He now enthusiastically frames 2017 as “a year of revolt” within the EU: He sees the upcoming series of crucial elections in Western European countries as a great opportunity to get rid of their old political elites, hoping for an end to the liberal order in Europe – and for a greater role for a new elite, one in tune with his ideas. This new elite, based on the Visegrád group comprising Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, would theoretically be closer to the voters’ needs, moods, and concerns.

Now, neither a win for far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen in France in May nor the toppling of German Chancellor Angela Merkel next fall is impossible. And even the mostly moderate Czech Republic, which will go to the polls at roughly the same time as Germany in mid-October, might get its own Silvio Berlusconi figure if Finance Minister Andrej Babiš, who also happens to be the country’s top media and business magnate, is elected prime minister.

But take a closer look and the holes in Orbán’s vision become quite apparent. From a distance, all four Visegrád governments can be seen as euroskeptic proponents of an EU with weak institutions and strong member states. In fact, this reading of the situation papers over cracks that have been widening of late.

The coalition governments in Prague and Bratislava, led by Social Democratic parties – at least in name, as far as Robert Fico’s Smer-SD party in Slovakia is concerned – are not interested in the kind of “conservative counterrevolution” promoted by the ruling parties in Budapest and Warsaw. Indeed, Slovakia just completed a surprisingly smooth six-month EU presidency, pursuing pragmatic lines in very difficult times. At the October 2016 GLOBSEC Tatra Summit Forum, one of the main official events of the Slovak presidency, participants discussed how Europe’s open societies can challenge far-right and populist parties. As a eurozone member, Slovakia is also more deeply integrated fiscally and economically with the EU’s core.

Meanwhile, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek opened the Czech-Austrian Dialogue Forum in November 2016 with a call to protect the tolerant soul of Central Europe. Going further still, Petr Kratochvíl, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute of International Relations, recently argued that in the case of a Le Pen win in the French presidential elections, it would be in Prague’s vital interest to keep its close links with Germany rather than side with its partners in the Visegrád group.

This is part of a broader trend: Czech and Slovak diplomats have been quietly distancing their countries from the “illiberal Budapest-Warsaw axis” and Orbán’s hijacking of the Visegrád discourse. Now similar voices are being heard in foreign policy debates in Warsaw. In a recent analysis of Hungary’s ambition to become a regional leader, the Polish Institute of International Affairs called for restoring greater symmetry in Warsaw’s relations with Budapest.

Behind Closed Doors

So far, these growing tensions have been handled behind closed doors. To avoid conflicts spilling into the public domain, the four countries have stuck to a diplomatic formula of coordinating on the EU level and reinforcing regional positions only when they can agree – on issues like the single market, freedom of movement, and a general position vis-à-vis London ahead of the Brexit negotiations. The Visegrád prime ministers and other high-ranking government officials continue to meet regularly and coordinate in Brussels ahead of every EU summit and relevant EU Council meeting. There is a shared concern that open divisions would be exploited by Germany and others to weaken this regional group even further.

But the question has started to dawn on the Visegrád members: What if electoral upheaval in 2017 really leads to an EU that is more variable and looser? In the absence of a common vision and shared understanding of the region’s interests, the result would be a more divergent and fragmented Central Europe.

In fact, what might look like a big opportunity for Hungary is perceived in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia as a big threat. These three countries have been among the main beneficiaries of Europe’s post-1989 liberal order, which is now under pressure from various directions. A potential deal between future US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the expense of Ukraine would be seen as a humiliating “new Yalta” by most Poles, regardless of political ideology. In contrast, Orbán would welcome it – and likely try to win concessions for ethnic Hungarian minorities as part of the whole package. Czech and Slovak leaders, for their part, will ultimately realize that the populist concept of “a Europe of nations” runs against the vital interest of small states at the EU’s eastern periphery. The prospect of being left on their own in the geopolitical turmoil building up in Central and Eastern Europe pushes them to work with Germany in keeping Europe’s liberal order in place.

Thus, key government figures in Prague and Bratislava are keeping their fingers crossed for Merkel to keep her job in the fall, regardless of how much they hate her stand in the refugee and migration crisis. And unlike governments in Warsaw and Budapest, they do not want to participate in a reconstruction of the region as a counterweight to German dominance within the EU.

In 2017, we will likely see more differentiation in the national trajectories of the Visegrád group over Europe’s future order. One consequence could be the rise of bilateralism in relations with Germany, other EU partners, Putin, and Trump. National narratives, domestic considerations – even Hungary is heading for elections in 2018 – and the personalities of the leaders involved will all shape the agenda of the gang of four. But one thing is clear: Orbán will play a smaller role than he likes to think.